More than ever, we need to hear the radical voices. We need to make sure that Independence isn’t the end goal, that it’s just the start. But more importantly, we need to make sure that saying that isn’t just rhetoric, that we actually make arguments for a better Scotland based on the reality of our situation, argues Jim Monaghan.
One thing that all the various sides in the forthcoming debate (yes, various, it’s not a binary debate) can agree on is that the events of Monday 13 March were momentous and could, just possibly be the beginning of the end of the UK.
By the end of this manic Monday Nicola Sturgeon emerged a clear champion. She had stolen Theresa May’s thunder, and left her opponents on both sides of the border caught in the headlights, nodding in unison going “blah blah distraction blah blah divisive”.
That it’s divisive is not in doubt, we know this. Politics is divisive, the bigger the question the more stark the divide. But this new set of questions (yes, it is a set and not a single issue) could split parties and split both sides of the 2014 referendum.
Although Sturgeon clearly stated in her speech that this was not a case of choosing one union over another, her interviews after made it clear that she was suggesting just that. It has been a long-held policy of the SNP to support EU membership. The preferred timing indicates that the Scottish Govt is hoping for a last minute lifeline to stop Scotland leaving the EU at all. Sturgeon sees a Yes vote in Indyref2 as a “Remain” vote. The trouble with that position is that it is one that hasn’t been put to the people – it’s an assumption.
We know some things. We know that almost 40% of Scottish voters opted for the UK to leave the EU. We know that 45% of Scottish voters opted for Scotland to leave the UK and, at least temporarily as part of that process, also leave the EU.
We think we know other things. Figures from post-referendum surveys and polls that seem to have been accepted as fact tell us that almost a third of SNP voters supported Brexit. Supposedly, around 20% of people who vote SNP in Holyrood elections also voted No in Indyref1.
But none of the statistics we have ask the question that needs to be answered – i.e. should an independent Scotland be a member of the EU? There is a desire from The Scottish Govt and MSPs from The SNP and Scottish Green Party to continue membership of at least the “single market” if not full membership of the EU. We have only voted on whether the UK as a whole should remain in the EU, this is a very different question.
There seems to be large movement in support or sympathy with EU migrants living in Scotland that contradicts the main theme of the Brexit campaign in England. Often, commentary right now can mistake the right to “Freedom of Movement” with the Single Market. Any Govt of any independent state can, if they wish pass a law to allow the freedom of movement of EU citizens in and out of their country. It is entirely up to them. Of course, they cannot guarantee that the arrangement is reciprocal, that their own citizens are free to travel and work within the EU. But the mood right now is more about protecting the rights of people coming here than it is about whether our Barry can go and work as a Barista in Berlin for the summer.
The Single Market is a different issue, this market has rules and those rules have real implications for anyone who believes that an Independent Scotland’s raison d’etre is a fairer, more just and more equal society. One of the main drivers of the economies in the Single Market has been privatisation. It’s a fundamental plank of the EU project, not some fleeting fashionable policy.
We know this in Scotland. The Pantomime that happens when vital ferry services come up for tender is a fine example. Despite the fact that the publicly owned Calmac have won the contract both times, they have had to reduce staffing and other costs each time to beat off rival bidders. In 2006, the Lab/Lib coalition in Holyrood opened the bidding to howls from the SNP who wanted the national ferry company to be given the contract. “It’s not us – it’s the EU made us do it” was the Executive’s response. Then last year we saw a bizarre role reversal with the SNP Govt pleading “our hands are tied – it’s the EU” and Labour disagreeing and calling for the contract to be given to Calmac.
If an Independent Scotland is to be anything other than a slightly better organised liberal democracy, aiming for “growth” as a primary goal, rather than as a result of better achievements, then it has to be able to begin to reorganise society through the ownership of industry, land and community assets. I know this has a familiar ring, coming from an old lefty it’s a pretty predictable line. But it’s not important that we agree or disagree about that. What is important is that we agree that we want to be able to, to have the power to, change it if we decide to.
In my opinion, the striking thing about The SNP’s 2014 referendum campaign was the noticeable lack of ‘independence’ in the Scottish Govt’s model. It was all about not rocking the boat – keeping the pound; leaving fiscal control with the Bank of England; keeping the monarchy; staying in a single UK energy market; a single UK market in research and development, in universities; membership of the EU and NATO – it seemed a bit toothless but not pointless, a bit like having a bit more devolution.
Ok, it is an exaggeration but it WAS safe, it WASN’T radical. The radicals were those who didn’t pay much attention to the White Paper, who saw the referendum as a first step to doing things better, who were interested in kicking open half-shut doors to see what possibilities lay behind them. The romantics of the pro-Indy left were calling for a more adventurous approach. One reason that they could try to offer this alternative vision to the Govt plan was that Scotland would not be bound by the EU Single Market rules. Visions of community-owned power grids, a nationalised public travel industry with free travel for all, Govt subsidy of key industries etc, are off the table if an independent Scotland is a member of the EU.
So there is a danger that, if the Scottish Govt pin Yes to EU membership, a more radical vision might be impossible. The very thing that might have tipped the balance in favour of Yes in 2014 could actually become a weak link this time round. Arguments of public ownership models will be slapped down by opponents as fantasy politics if campaigners claim these are achievable within the EU.
So, if the message is again a safe one, how do we win over the generally leftist Scottish public, notorious for their progressive thinking?
Sadly, there are some things we know. We know these things from actual votes and polls over years. And these figures suggest that that the radical vote, the left vote, here in Scotland isn’t as large as we think it is. It may be that, to cross the line and win Independence, the Scottish Govt need to convince the mainstream thinkers, the no voters who are not on the left, and the normally ‘safe’.
The narrative that we on the left of Scottish politics tell ourselves is that there is an overall general leaning to left policies and ideas – that we are somehow more radical in our thinking than other parts of the UK and that this is where the battle will be won or lost. The voting figures say otherwise. I am no John Curtice, all I can do is highlight some voting figures for interpretation.
In the first election for the newly devolved parliament in 1999, The Scottish Green Party (SGP) and Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) each had an MSP elected. By the next election in 2003 both parties had seen a huge rise in their support leading to the election of 13 MSPs between them (7 SGP 6 SSP). The total vote for both was 13% on the regional lists. That was the peak for the left vote in Scotland. By 2007 their combined vote had returned to almost exactly where it was in 1999, the SNP benefitting from that fall by taking the list votes from those parties.
Although the SNP did tale some of the popular headline policies of those parties, their 2007-11 programme featured mainly an extension of similar polices to the previous Lib/Lab coalition. Extending universal ‘benefits’, slight changes to land reform etc are all “good guy” policies but not really radical or transformative.
Since then the SNP have continued to play safe and do so for good reasons, it is what Scottish voters look for. It may be uncomfortable for us to acknowledge, but Blair and Browns New Labour were very popular in Scotland, returned by the electorate three times, even after Iraq. In 2010 when New labour finally lost power in Westminster, their vote in Scotland went UP!
Since then, under Miliband and then Corbyn, Labour have taken a leftwards direction, which has coincided with the collapse of their support in Scotland, the more left they get, the less popular they become. The Tories have now replaced Labour as Scotland’s second Party, our electorate have rejected a Corbyn-led, potentially left Labour. Could it be that we have been kidding ourselves? Are we allowing a narrative that suits us to cloud the reality of how people in Scotland vote and what they want from their Parliament? As we complain about the SNP playing safe it could be that they are doing so as it is the correct strategy. One thing that we can see clearly is that whatever they are doing it works for them – they are winning.
If this analysis is true then it makes sense for the Scottish Govt to continue on that path and try to court the middle ground, which might be what delivers Independence rather than a radical agenda.
That leaves the pro-indy left in a difficult position; they could be marginalised and, once again, left in a quandary about supporting Independence as a “first step” rather than as a radical move in itself. Winning the argument for a progressive Scotland could be more difficult this time and, if YES wins, even more difficult in a newly Independent Scotland within the EU.
The next two years will not be an easy time for the left. It never has been easy but, more than ever, we need to hear the radical voices. We need to make sure that Independence isn’t the end goal, that it’s just the start. But more importantly, we need to make sure that saying that isn’t just rhetoric, that we actually make arguments for a better Scotland based on the reality of our situation, not on how we wish things were.
Wishful thinking never won nothing.